Trademark Symbols and When to Use Them

Sophi Robbins

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Given their constant presence in our daily lives, the symbols ® and ™ are very familiar to most of us. But what do they actually mean? And as a business owner, how do you know when to use them?

Both symbols refer to U.S. federal protection granted to the logo or phrase. The United States Patent and Trademark Office catalogues all registrations and applications in its database and reviews the database for potentially confusing marks when processing new applications. Registering your mark through their office is the best way to defend your brand from competitors.

What does the ™ symbol mean?

The ™ symbol, when added to a logo or phrase, indicates an unregistered trademark. This could mean that the trademark owner has “common law” rights, established automatically by law simply by using the mark. Or it could mean that they have begun the federal registration process but have not completed it yet. Although there is more protection to be gained by registering with the USPTO, it is still wise to use the TM symbol to communicate the seriousness of your mark, that you consider this to be your intellectual property that others cannot use. Competitors are more likely to avoid infringement when they consider the mark your property.

When to use the ™ symbol?

Use the ™ symbol whenever you use your unregistered mark in public. Common uses are as a  superscript at the end of the word or subtly integrated into the logo. It is often tempting to hide it amidst the design, but it’s important to remember that it should be easily visible since its purpose is to communicate your ownership to competitors.

Two examples for use:

  1. You just started your new business selling Sally’s Seashells. You have not registered your mark, and you aren’t even sure you want to. You can still use Sally’s Seashells™.
  2. You decide that, yes, it’s a good investment to register the mark. You work with an attorney to file an application and learn that it will be several months before it completes the process. You may keep using TM until you achieve registration.

Although it’s rarer, you might have also seen the symbol SM in a similar situation. The use of  SM , standing for service mark, is used the same way as ™ , but exclusively on services. For example, if your company sold seashell cleaning services rather than actual seashells, you could use Sally’s Seashell CleaningSM.

What does ® mean?

The ® symbol refers to registered trademarks only. Do not display this symbol until you have achieved registration with the USPTO. Use without registration can result in the USPTO refusing to register your mark, in which case you’ve lost the protection that the USPTO could afford for your intellectual property.

When to use ®

Use ® whenever you use your registered mark in public. Use the same methods for integrating it into the phrase or logo as you would for ™.

Many companies submit multiple applications on the same mark in order to cover multiple kinds of goods or services. For example, McDonald’s has registrations for both “restaurant services” and “coffee drinks.” It may be important for you to differentiate use of ® if only certain goods or services are registered.

Two examples for use:

  1. Your registration for Sally’s Seashells is complete! You receive a certificate of registration from the USPTO and can now start using Sally’s Seashells® to establish your brand against competitors.
  2. You applied for registration for Sally’s Seashells to sell seashells, and also to sell t-shirts, which you plan to do later on when your fanbase grows. The registration went through for seashells, but it hasn’t yet for t-shirts because you’re not selling them yet. You can use ® on your website, on your seashells, and on advertising. But for your t-shirts, you must continue to use ™ .

Both ™ and ® are optional symbols, and only serve to benefit you by communicating ownership and protection. It can easily become cumbersome to include the symbols in every single instance of a mark, so the general recommendation is to use it in the “first and last” cases. For example, your website may include the symbols at the top of the page in the header, and at the bottom in the footer, but not on any of the references in between. Or in a lengthy document, you can use the symbol on the first page or title but leave it off throughout until you reach the last instance of use. This clearly communicates the protection of the mark without overbearing your materials.

Use of the symbols is a great tool for protecting your intellectual property – using them correctly can save you a headache with the USPTO. Reach out to us if you have any questions, we’re always available to kickstart your IP journey.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

PARALEGAL & OFFICE ADMINISTRATOR

Sophi has a background in office management and small business management and has had the pleasure of seeing multiple small companies grow with her. Since graduating with a BA in Environmental Studies and Business Marketing, she has worked in both office jobs and the service industry, finding ways to learn new skills and gain responsibilities. She puts those skills to good use with her own small business, an etsy craft store. She is also a skilled barista and mixologist, and enjoys trivia games and baking (she usually doesn’t even use a recipe, thanks to her time managing a bakery).

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